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The Appellate Division Court Revives a New Jersey Municipal Judge’s Discrimination Case Predicated on Her Perceived Alcoholism

As a worker in New Jersey, you need to understand that the Law Against Discrimination (LAD) protects you from discrimination not just as a result of your membership in a protected class but also as a result of your employer’s perception that you were a member of a protected class, even if that belief was factually incorrect. On this basis, if your bosses punished you because they thought you were, for example, disabled, you can win a LAD case, even if you were not disabled. A knowledgeable New Jersey disability discrimination lawyer can help you determine how to advance your case based on a perceived disability.

V.P. was a municipal court judge in Newark whose LAD case was one of perceived disability. Problems came to a head in May 2017 when, one day, the chief judge believed she smelled alcohol on V.P.’s breath. The judge denied that she’d been drinking.

The chief judge contacted the city’s personnel director and informed her that the judge “was intoxicated and emanating the smell of alcohol…” The memo also contained the chief judge’s accusation that she suspected V.P. of being drunk at work one time before.

By late May, the city had decided not to renew the V.P.’s contract, thus ending her employment as a municipal judge. V.P. made multiple inquiries and allegedly “was told the impetus for her termination was” a letter from the chief judge asserting that V.P. was drunk at work.┬áIn a subsequent session of the city council, the personnel director asserted that she had offered V.P. treatment for her alcohol problems, but the judge had refused that option.

Ultimately, the judge sued the city for disability discrimination in violation of the LAD — specifically, alcoholism. V.P. asserted that she was not an alcoholic, but that her bosses perceived her to be and illegally fired her as a result.

The Appellate Division court concluded that V.P.’s allegations made out a viable claim of disability discrimination. In reaching that outcome, the court pointed out that an employer need not act with bad intentions to be liable for violating the LAD. The law merely requires a worker advancing a discrimination claim to show discrimination that “would not have occurred but for her protected status,” regardless of whether the employer’s violations were intentional or unintentional.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has long held that alcoholism is a disability under the LAD, meaning that an employer’s adverse action based on a belief that an employee is an alcoholic is possibly actionable based on that perceived disability.

The Essential Elements of a Claim of Perceived Disability Discrimination

When you’re taking on a case like that, you need to allege four essential things:

  1. that your employer perceived you as disabled
  2. that you remained “qualified to perform the essential functions of the job and were performing at a level that met the employer’s expectations”
  3. that your employer took an adverse action against you due to your perceived disability
  4. your employer subsequently sought a “similarly qualified individual” to replace you

The city argued that the judge failed to meet the adverse action element, namely, that she was merely not re-appointed when her term ended at the end of May. The court rejected that position. In 1981, the Supreme Court, in a ruling of great import for educators and others whose continued employment is predicated on serial renewals of fixed-duration contracts, stated that “no functional difference exists between the failure to reappoint at the end of [a] fixed term and the dismissal of an at-will employee.”

This meant that the non-renewal of V.P.’s contract was the functional equivalent of termination for purposes of LAD analysis and she had met the “adverse action” requirement of the law.

The remainder of V.P.’s allegation sufficiently clearly laid out a case in which her bosses thought she was an alcoholic, ended her contract, and replaced her despite her remaining qualified and capable of doing the essential tasks of her job as a municipal judge, meaning she had adequately pled a prima facie case of discrimination.

Discrimination in the workplace is wrong. That’s true if you’re an older worker, a worker with a disability, an LGBTQ+ worker, etc., but it’s equally true if you’re employer punished you because they thought you were one or more of these things, but you actually were not. Whether you were harmed at work because you were disabled or your employer mistakenly believed you were, the skillful New Jersey disability discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates can help. We have extensive experience representing New Jersey workers like you and are eager to discuss how we can help you get justice. To find out more, contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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